The San Francisco Unified School District is reporting higher participation in higher level math classes and a decrease in achievement disparities nearly four years after rolling out a controversial new approach to teaching the subject to students.
In order to align the district with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the school board in 2014 adopted a new math sequence that shifted Algebra I from eighth grade level to ninth grade, with the goal of reducing disparities among ethnic groups and encouraging students to participate in four years of high school math.
The shift has generated controversy among parents advocating for an accelerated math sequence, who argue that students wishing to enroll in advanced placement college classes – such as calculus — are now facing more obstacles.
“The board had in mind that more students would ultimately succeed and take four years of math in high school if they had a sequence of math learning that was more deliberate, less accelerated and less impacted by tracking,” said SFUSD Chief Academic Officer Brent Stephens.
“There’s lots of research in the education world about the negative impacts of tracking in schools, or creating deliberate, ability-based groupings,” he added.
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The first group of students affected by the new high school math sequence are now in their senior year, and the district’s data points to several significant gains. An additional 456 students are enrolled in advanced level math classes this year compared to last year, and diversity is greater among all students taking those classes than was reported in previous years.
According to the district data for the 2018-2019 school year released on Wednesday, the number of African American students taking math courses beyond Algebra 2 increased by 34.7 percent.
For Latino students, participation increased by 20.1 percent, while Pacific Islander students, Filipino students, English language learners, and students with an Individual Education Program (IEP) saw 25.2 percent, 32.7 percent, 31.6 percent and 10 percent increase, respectively.
For white students and for those who qualify for free and reduced lunches, participation in higher level math classes increased by 16 percent and by nearly 12 percent this year.
The new sequence prescribes that students take Algebra I at the ninth grade level, followed by Geometry in 10th grade and Algebra II in 11th grade. Prior to the change, when students were enrolled in Algebra I during the last year of middle school, repeat rates were high, particularly among minority student groups, according to Stephens.
“About 40 percent of African American students taking Algebra were required to repeat it,” said Stephens, adding that almost immediately after the shift to CCS — which redistributed the algebra learning across grades 6-8 with the bulk concentrated at the 9th grade level, then tasked each district with creating unique curricula to match — that percentage dropped to 12 percent.
Stephens added that the number of students receiving failing grades in middle school math classes also “decreased dramatically,” along with the number of students repeating algebra at the 9th grade level, a trend “that’s been holding steady for three years,” he said.
A policy passed by the school board in 2016 created four pathways for taking math classes in their ninth-grade year, including testing out of Algebra I. Stephens said The City has also made funding available to the district to offer Geometry courses during the summer, adding that about 300 students transition from 9th to 10th grade per summer make use of that option.
At the 11th grade level, a compression course is offered that combines Algebra II and Pre-Calculus, positioning students to be able to pursue AP course work, said Stephens.
According to Lizzie Hull Barnes, a supervisor in the district’s Math Department, 702 students took the compression course last year, 8 of which were seniors. Of the remaining 694 students, 561 are this year taking courses beyond that level, “including AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Statistics and a Probability and Statics course.”
A total of 54 students who took the Compression course also enrolled in Pre-Calculus, according to Hull Barnes.
According to the district, the number of students taking AP math courses has increased by 5.9 percent over the last two years, with enrollment in AP Statistics increasing by more than 48 percent.
By contrast, enrollment in AP Calculus has dropped by nearly 13 percent over that same period, the district reported, attributing the changes to “a greater need for statistical literacy across more careers” and stating that a “de-emphasis in Calculus is consistent with UC and Stanford admissions guidance.”
But Michelle Parker, a former President of the S.F. Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and co-founder of the SF Parent PAC, said the reason calculus enrollment is on the decline could be related to access issues.
“It’s probably partly because it’s hard to get to AP Calculus now — AP Statistics you can can take after Algebra II so its easier,” she said, adding that access to higher level math courses remains an issue across the district. “There are a bunch of schools that don’t have AP Calculus.”
Parker also questioned the equity in access of the 11th grade compression course and other pathways.
“With Pathways, the burden is on students. It also feels like if there is a parent that is informed and knows how to navigate the system then they can navigate it. There are kids getting into these classes because they have informed or active parents” said Parker.
“Has the district has decreased disparities in achievement? Absolutely,” added Parker. “Then there is this side by side thing that’s happening where the people who are advantaged continue to be advanced — and we are making it harder for people to navigate the system and that concerns me.”
Newly installed School Board Commissioner Alison Collins said while tracking was a national problem, Algebra I “was considered a gatekeeper that prevented kids from going to college and even finishing high school in some cases.”
“Our district like every other district in the US used to track students as early as… in 6th grade. That tracking resulted in some kids being denied access to high quality instruction in math,” said Collins, adding that in Oakland Unified School District, where she has worked previously, students were “repeating algebra two to three times, and that wasn’t uncommon.”
“When a child is repeating that many classes, they are not taking other classes they should be taking. Some don’t graduate,” she said.